Venezuela's Economic Hardship Makes Life Tough For Motorists

May 1, 2017
Originally published on May 1, 2017 8:58 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has ordered a 60 percent increase in the minimum wage effective today. Protests against Maduro's government have left almost 30 people dead in recent weeks as the economic situation there continues to worsen. Inflation has surged, making even basic goods too expensive for many workers. The once-booming auto industry there is among those hard hit in the crisis. General Motors recently announced it is pulling out, after its Venezuelan factory was confiscated under a court order. NPR's Philip Reeves reports on the way car owners are coping with the country's chronic shortages.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: If you're looking for proof that there is life after death, this is where to find it. The dead are being brought back to life here in the backstreets of Caracas. With the help of a few tools, a lot of paint and a little polish, cars in this auto repair shop have had long, hard lives.

Oh, my God. Look at that one. Oh, this is a Mustang. All right. How old - tell me how old this one is.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: It's a '77 Ford Mustang, built when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Right now, it's just a rust-bitten skeleton. Luiz Sanchez is the mechanic who's reincarnating this wreck.

LUIZ SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Some cars come in here in even worse condition, but we make them like new," says Sanchez.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He points at the bashed-in frame of a Chevy Malibu also from the late '70s. Sanchez painstakingly repairs these vehicles and sends them back out to rejoin the other old clunkers on Venezuela's roads.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING)

REEVES: In these days of crisis, you see many of these. You see them broken down by the roadside with their drivers under the hoods, trying to squeeze a few more days of life out of them. You see them held together by wire and rope, spewing exhaust as they chug along. You see them hauling goods and people and animals. In Venezuela, some people depend for their livelihoods on the kind of cars that in other countries would be considered collectors' items.

RAMON DIAZ: It's the Dodge Darts, the Ford Malibus, Chevy Novas. And you still see occasional Bel Airs.

REEVES: Ramon Diaz is an English teacher from Caracas. He was educated in Kansas and is the owner of a 2005 Ford Explorer that's getting a little elderly.

DIAZ: What happens in the First World when your car gets old? You change it. Here, you can't afford to. Here, the change is to walking - see, to public transportation.

REEVES: Diaz says buying a new car is now out of the question for most Venezuelans. To do so, they need dollars because their national currency, the bolivar, has collapsed. Yet dollars are extremely hard to buy through official channels, and the black market rate's gone through the roof. Theoretically, people can purchase a relatively cheap Chinese car from the Venezuelan government, but there's a waiting list, says Diaz.

DIAZ: I actually - I'm on one of those lists. I got on one of those lists, like, six years ago.

REEVES: And you're still waiting?

DIAZ: Oh, yeah. But I'm not expecting ever to get a call like, hey, your car is here.

REEVES: To get one of those cars any time soon, you need to be in the party, says Diaz.

DIAZ: The government political party, which is the one that's in power for the past 18 years - normally you get those cars by connection. If you're in the military, you get them faster. If you work for the government, you get them faster. So no, I'm not expecting that at all.

REEVES: There's another thing. Right now, a fancy new car isn't necessarily such a great idea, says Diaz. Caracas has the world's highest murder rate. You can be killed just for your mobile phone.

DIAZ: To keep a low profile, you don't want to have the latest car. That's a big risk. That'll draw too much attention.

REEVES: All this means Luiz Sanchez and his fellow mechanics must carry on bringing cars back to life. It's not easy. Spare parts are so hard to get that some Venezuelans even drive to neighboring Colombia and Brazil to search for these. But it is worthwhile. Old cars are in demand and have been gaining value in Venezuela because of the crisis, explains Sanchez.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: In the chaos of Venezuela, owning an old clunker that should be dead means you're one of the lucky ones.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.